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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 541: debated on Monday 5 March 2012

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Work Experience

1. What recent assessment he has made of the outcomes of his Department’s work experience schemes for unemployed people. (97688)

17. What recent assessment he has made of the outcomes of his Department’s work experience schemes for unemployed people. (97707)

Work experience is a very positive scheme, and 51% of people are off benefits 13 weeks after starting a placement. I am delighted to tell the House that, notwithstanding the attempts to damage the programme, it remains strong, with another 200 employers, including Airbus and Centre Parcs, wanting to get involved to help young people to gain vital experience of work.

Will my right hon. Friend expand on the answer he has just given and tell the House what other support he has received since the row about work experience broke out? This vitally important and publicly popular initiative helps young people to get the experience they need to get into work. Would he echo Sir Stuart Rose’s comments that companies involved in the scheme should show some “backbone” and not give in to politically motivated protests?

Before I answer that question, may I pass our message of support to the Chair of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, who has had a terrible accident? We wish her well and a speedy recovery to her normal place for Work and Pensions questions.

There has been a lot of support for the work experience programme. A small number of people, in some cases backed by the unions, have made trouble. I shall quote Sir Stuart Rose—this is interesting because his successful career started at the bottom. He said:

“We’re offering young people the opportunity to…understand what the workplace is…really…about and it appears that there is some plan to sabotage this which…is nonsense…it seems …straightforward. You can come in, you can get work experience and if you…don’t like it after the first week you can”

leave.

Given the importance of schemes such as work experience to giving unemployed people the skills they need to compete in the labour market, especially in the north, will my right hon. Friend update the House on discussions he has had with companies that support the Government in trying to achieve that?

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State who has responsibility for employment held a meeting with a number of employers who are part of the scheme, all of whom backed and supported it. They were concerned that the message goes out that the scheme benefits young people. One employer who is not a profit-maker—the chief executive of Barnardo’s—said:

“Scrapping the scheme would have taken a lifeline from thousands of young people.”

I should also quote a girl called Dawn, who was on the programme after having real trouble finding work. She said that work experience was daunting, but that:

“It’s work experience—the clue’s in the name. Nobody is going to give you a job unless you get experience first, and that means sometimes working for free”.

I urge the Secretary of State to sort out the teething problems with the programme—there have been such problems. Will he look at the Morrisons initiative, which is different and overcomes many of the criticisms that have been made of the programme? Will he also be assured that many Opposition Members want a scheme that gets young people into work and work experience rather than being on the dole?

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s positive involvement. I simply say to him that the scheme as it stands is incredibly positive. More than 50% of those who enter the work experience scheme go into work, many with the employers who took them on for work experience. The reason we set up the scheme is what young people said, and they told us, “Our problem is that when we go to an interview, employers ask us, ‘What experience have you got?' We say, ‘We don’t have experience.' They say, ‘We can’t employ you.' But without employment we can't get work experience.” I genuinely believe from our discussions with employers that the scheme is a positive move, but I will certainly look at the scheme that the hon. Gentleman talks about.

I echo the Secretary of State’s good wishes to the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee.

Work experience is a very good thing. The Minister of State has emphasised that the scheme is voluntary—his U-turn last week underlined that—but jobcentre letters say the opposite. They say:

“If, without good reason, you fail to start, fail to go when expected or stop going…Jobseekers Allowance could cease to be payable”.

The Department for Work and Pensions website says the same. Until recently the website also said that the minimum wage applied unless work experience was compulsory. That point has mysteriously disappeared from the site. Will the Secretary of State get a grip, clear up this extraordinary muddle and end the confusion in his Department?

I will do a little deal with the right hon. Gentleman: I will ensure that any little discrepancies are sorted out, providing that he and his party step forward and publicly welcome the whole idea of the work experience programme and condemn the many unions, such as Unite, GMB, Unison and others, that are backing this ludicrous Right to Work programme. Will the Opposition state that the unions should withdraw their backing? Last week, we held discussions with employers, and they asked that no sanctions be taken unless they say that something has happened to damage the business or cause a problem. We have agreed that in essence, and that is how it will stand.

Child Poverty

Across Government, we are investing in a range of programmes to tackle the drivers of child poverty. Universal credit alone will lift 350,000 children out of poverty. The previous Labour Government spent £150 billion on tax credits from 2004-2010, much of which was targeted at families with children, but despite that, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies noted recently, we are still a long way off hitting the targets. There is still much to be done.

Is the Secretary of State aware that, according to the IFS, the Government will not reach their statutory target by 2015? Equally importantly, is he aware that of the 35,000 children in Coventry and Warwickshire whose families are on the poverty line and will experience a reduction of £1,400 a year, many are disabled? Will he reconsider his position on that?

Interestingly, the IFS assumed that no changes to future policy would be made and did not account for fundamentals, such as behaviour change, or for education policies such as the early intervention work and some of the education reforms. The IFS did not consider several other policies—for example, the work with disadvantaged two-year-olds, the £180 million bursary fund, the early intervention grant and the fairness premium—which is fair enough, but we believe that they would affect its figures. We are desperately keen to eradicate child poverty, as we originally stated, and we stand by that. We did not enter power not to do that. The hon. Gentleman needs to acknowledge, however, that we also inherited a terrible deficit and huge debt problem. Those things tend to collide, but we are doing our level best—this is what universal credit does—to rectify the situation for the poorest in society.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in a country where one child in five is growing up in a household without work, the best way to tackle child poverty in the long run is to break the cycle of dependency now running, in some cases, into three generations? Many of the measures he has mentioned, including work experience schemes, literacy programmes, subsidy programmes and so on, are designed to do that.

I agree with my hon. Friend. We also inherited a system with far too much in-work poverty. Our aim is to move as many people as possible through universal credit and into work, and to ensure that, through universal credit, they are better off. That is the key point. I have also made the point, however, that the idea of “poverty plus a pound”, by which we just rotate money between people to move them slightly above a particular level before they collapse back, is a mistake and led to poverty rising on the previous Government’s watch.

A recent report by the Children’s Society indicates that there will be a sharp increase in the number of disabled children living in poverty when universal credit is introduced, as a result of the £1,400 a year reduction. All the statistics show that poverty disproportionately impacts on families with disabled children. Does the Secretary of State think that the current levels of support are too generous? If not, why do the Government continue with this very harsh proposal?

It is my belief that universal credit will hugely help people in those situations, and the transitional protection for them will also protect those who move on to a slightly different level. My main point to the hon. Lady, who I know takes this very seriously—

I beg her pardon. I say to the right hon. Lady—quite rightly so and well deserved—that we are in the business of trying to secure life change through all these groups so that they can take control of their lives. My hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for disabled people is working to ensure that it is far easier than ever before for people to get into work and take control of their lives, and that is what most of the lobby wants us to do.

Student Support

3. What steps his Department is taking to support students who suspend their studies due to illness. (97690)

It is important to support students who become seriously ill. Those whose illness or disability causes them to suspend their studies with the agreement of their college may be eligible for disability living allowance, which has a three-month qualifying period. A student in receipt of DLA can also claim employment and support allowance. However, those who are terminally ill are not subject to the qualifying period and can claim DLA and ESA immediately.

My constituent Ian Leech sadly lost his daughter Melissa to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2008, while she was a student. It was six months before Mel received any financial support from the Government. I am proud that last year the Government removed an important barrier to seriously ill students receiving support, by ending the rule that said that those who had to suspend their studies would be treated as having received their student loan. However, those students cannot claim ESA unless they qualify for DLA, even though they might be suffering from a disease such as cancer. Will the Minister look again at what more can be done to help students?

I am very much aware of the case that my hon. Friend raises and pay tribute to Mr Leech, who has been a tireless campaigner for change in this area. Employment and support allowance is an income-replacement benefit; therefore, students are eligible only under limited circumstances, because their main source of financial support is the education system. However, I understand my hon. Friend’s point that a three-month qualifying period for DLA means that some long-term sick students might have to serve a waiting period before they become eligible for ESA. I am taking the opportunity presented by the introduction of PIP— the personal independence payment—to reconsider the position, and I can tell him that I am looking closely at it.

A constituent of mine, Mr Ollie Evans, had to interrupt his studies owing to a serious illness. He was unable to claim the various benefits that the Minister has outlined; at the same time, the Student Loans Company was clawing back all types of support that it had given him. Will she commit to working in collaboration with the Minister for Universities and Science to put in place a more flexible system of support for students who have to interrupt their studies?

The hon. Gentleman will already be aware that if students fall ill they are eligible for student finance for up to 60 days—I am sure that he will have advised his constituent of that. I can assure him that as PIP is developed and we consider the issue further, we will be talking to colleagues in other Departments. The important thing is that we have the right support in place for long-term sick and disabled students.

Youth Contract

4. What effect he expects the Government’s youth contract to have on the number of unemployed young people. (97691)

16. What effect he expects the Government’s youth contract to have on the number of unemployed young people. (97706)

We are in the final stages of preparing for the launch of the youth contract in April. We believe that it will have a positive impact on youth unemployment, providing nearly half a million support opportunities for young people. We and employers are working together to give young people the support they need to gain employment.

At a meeting with business people in my constituency some months ago, there were calls for a small tax break, or some other form of support from the Government, to help them take on young people. I am therefore delighted that 160,000 job subsidies worth up to £2,275 will now be available for each business that employs an 18 to 24-year-old through the Work programme. Can the Minister comment on the level of interest in the scheme so far?

There is already considerable interest in what is planned, and I hope that it will give unemployed young people a leg-up in the workplace. We hope that the challenge that they face owing to a lack of previous experience—which we were talking about earlier—will be ameliorated, at least to some degree, by the incentive payment that we will provide, and that the result will be far more young people getting their first opportunity to get into work.

I thank the Minister for his original answer, but can he tell me what Jobcentre Plus will be doing differently as a result of the youth contract?

We are also stepping up the support that we provide to young unemployed people through Jobcentre Plus, which will include more frequent work-focused interviews. We are also recruiting more youth advisers in Jobcentre Plus to provide help to the young unemployed. We are determined to deal with the problem of youth unemployment, which in all parts of the House we agree is a massive challenge for the nation.

If the scheme is to cover 5% of those in the NEET category—those not in education, employment or training—what plans does the Minister have for the other 95%?

I assume that the hon. Lady is referring to the programme that we have just announced for 16 to 17-year-olds. Of course, the big challenge with that age group is not the total number of NEETs, because most young people move quickly back into education. However, there is a hard core of young people who spend long periods not in education or employment, and they are not in the benefits system either, so we have no direct means of engaging with them. I hope and believe that the new approach—founded on payment by results, with charitable and private sector groups working together to try to reach that audience—will make a big difference to engaging with them and getting them back into either employment or education.

How will the scheme help people in my constituency, where youth unemployment has increased by 88% in the past 12 months? Is not this too little, too late?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is continuing to cite figures that are statistically inaccurate. The figures to which he refers were distorted by the previous Government’s propensity to bury young people in the statistics where they would not be visible. Now that we do not put people on to a training allowance, which counts as being off jobseeker’s allowance, we are telling the truth about the scale of youth unemployment and seeing the real picture. Our statisticians have made the calculations and found that, when those statistical adjustments are taken into account, there has been no increase in youth unemployment of more than six months over the past two years.

Rather than falling since the general election, youth unemployment in my constituency has risen by five people; it is still too high, however, and I certainly welcome the youth contract. Clearly, it has also risen in other parts of the country at a rate that the west of England has not experienced, so will there be a way of ensuring that the take-up of the youth contract will be high in the parts of the country where it is most needed?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that this is a huge challenge for us. The truth is that, since the general election, youth unemployment has risen by approximately 100,000, with about half that increase coming from full-time students looking for part-time jobs. I regard any level of youth unemployment as too high, and I hope that the subsidies that we provide for employers who hire young people, together with the extra work experience and apprenticeship places being created through the youth contract, will help those in precisely the parts of the country to which he is referring.

Incapacity Benefit

Incapacity benefit reassessment has been successfully implemented and the reassessment exercise remains on track to be completed by spring 2014. We are reassessing around 11,000 claimants on incapacity benefits each week. Those who are ready and fit for work are able to receive support via the Work programme. Those who are not fit for work will continue to receive ongoing support for as long as they need it.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but is it not true that growing delays in the process are increasing the uncertainty for vulnerable people? Does he accept the evidence provided by groups such as the Barrow & District Disability Association that the call-back time for the advisers’ helpline has increased from three hours to often more than 24 hours? Does he acknowledge that if this process runs aground due to incompetence, the most vulnerable people and the taxpayer will lose out?

Let me repeat that the incapacity benefit reassessment process, which is just coming up to one year old, is running on time. We have some delays in the claims process for new claimants of employment and support allowance, which is resulting in people having to wait an average of five days longer to be assessed than was previously the case. That is too long. They are having to wait five days longer as a result of the changes implemented following Professor Harrington’s review, but we have a programme in place to enable us to catch up by the summer.

PAYE

8. What estimate he has made of the cost to a typical small business of introducing real-time reporting of PAYE information. (97695)

Real-time reporting of PAYE information aims to reduce administrative burdens for all employers, and builds on processes that are already in place. The current burden of PAYE falls disproportionately on small employers. We are building on existing processes, and the annual saving to all businesses is estimated at £300 million per year from 2014-15. The smallest employers—those employing nine people or fewer—will be given free software upgrades by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. A recent HMRC consultation showed that 75% of people thought that the Government’s time scale for implementing real-time PAYE information was unachievable. All employers will have to move to the new system by October 2013 if universal credit is to succeed, yet some small businesses are still unaware of the time scale, and many are not computerised. What additional assistance will the Government provide to help such businesses to ensure that they meet the timetable?

HMRC, which is now responsible for this measure, meets me and others in the Department regularly. We have embedded some DWP employees in the HMRC programme; they are locked together. They are, as I understand it, on time, and they are having constant discussions with large and small employers about the issues and the problems, and assessing what needs to be done to make this happen and to make all the changes. We must remember that all those firms collect those data anyway; the only question is how they report it back within the monthly cycle. We are on top of that but, obviously, we want to keep our eye on the matter.

Small businesses and business more widely rightly demand that the burden Government place on them is as light as possible, but the current restrictions on saving for a pension with the National Employment Savings Trust mean that businesses must deal with multiple pension providers. Last month, the Pensions Minister told me that he was reflecting on whether to remove the restrictions on NEST. Will the Secretary of State confirm that reflection will now turn into action?

I was just discussing the matter with my hon. Friend the Pensions Minister. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are looking at this right now. Even though we feel sympathetic to what he says, we are still reflecting on the matter.

Cold Weather (Financial Assistance)

9. What assistance his Department has provided to vulnerable people to protect them from cold weather. (97698)

This winter, we have made more than 5 million cold weather payments at a cost of more than £129 million and over 12 million winter fuel payments at a cost of over £2 billion.

I would like to make a plea on behalf of the pensioners in my High Peak constituency, which, as the Minister’s colleagues on the Front Bench will know from previous visits, is one of the coldest in the country. Will the Minister concede that winters in High Peak are cold, bringing increased heating costs for all our residents, but more particularly for old-age pensioners?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Although I have not visited his constituency, I suspect there is a clue in the name. He will be pleased to know that three weather stations are linked to his constituency—Bingley, Woodford and Leek—and each has been triggered twice this winter, so low-income pensioners and disabled people will all have received £50 this winter to help them with their fuel bills.

Does the Minister accept that, despite the allowances, energy bills remain simply a nightmare for so many elderly and vulnerable people on low incomes, so would it not be appropriate for his Department to have a word with the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and particularly with the Secretary of State, about the very substantial increases in energy prices, which, as I say, are the cause of so much misery for our elderly people?

I am sure the whole House would agree with the hon. Gentleman that high energy prices, poor home insulation and a lack of competition in the market are all issues for pensioners—and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is very much aware of them. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that 600,000 of the poorest pensioners received £120 off their electricity bills this winter through the warm home discount scheme—something that will be expanded in future winters.

Mesothelioma

The Department provides support for sufferers of mesothelioma by way of compensation paid through the industrial injuries scheme. The main benefit is a weekly industrial injuries disablement benefit, while lump sum compensation payments are also available through the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979 and the diffuse mesothelioma scheme 2008.

I thank the Minister for that reply. He will be aware that, because of its shipbuilding and industrial heritage, Medway has the second highest rate of mesothelioma deaths in the UK. His Department has been in active discussions with various stakeholders regarding a compensation fund of last resort for some time now. Given that we are expecting a spike in mesothelioma deaths in the next few years, will he advise us when the discussions will conclude and the outcomes will ensue?

My hon. Friend is a powerful advocate on behalf of her constituents on this terrible condition. We accept that this process is taking longer to conclude than we had hoped. I can assure her, however, that my noble Friend Lord Freud is continuing in active discussion with the insurance industry and others, and that we are determined to bring forward our proposals as soon as possible.

Rather than set an arbitrary deadline, we are keen to conclude as rapidly as possible. One important step forward has been the setting up of the employers’ liability tracing organisation. Often, people worked for firms many years ago, making employer liability insurance difficult to come by. This tracing service is helping people to get the insurance payouts to which they have every entitlement.

Youth Unemployment

The youth contract, to which I referred earlier, is worth nearly £1 billion. It builds on the substantial support already available to help unemployed young people to enter work. It includes more intensive support for all 18 to 24-year-olds, additional funded work experience places and a new wage incentive scheme delivered through the Work programme.

The number of young people in my constituency who are not in education, employment or training is double the national average, and it has been suggested that the area should be treated as a hot spot for action. Stockton borough council is doing its bit as a local employer, but its powers are limited in the wake of spending cuts. Will the Minister take specific action to help the hardest hit areas, such as mine, and will he make proper resources available so that real things can happen, rather than tinkering around the edges?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I regard the labour market in the north-east as one of our big priorities. That is why we have targeted the area with support through the regional growth fund and established an enterprise zone in the Tees valley, and that is why we are doing all that we can—through the Work programme, the different aspects of the youth contract, and our work in the skills arena in providing more apprenticeships—to bring about both private sector growth and an increase in the skills of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents to help them get into work.

The Minister has form with respect to inner-city Manchester: he once compared Moss Side to the film “The Wire”. Will he tell me whether he takes the question of youth unemployment seriously? We know that, if left unchecked, it will have an impact on all the malaises that lead to exactly the sort of thing that we see in north American cities, and we do not want to see it once again in inner-city Britain.

Let me say first that the hon. Gentleman clearly never read the speech that I made, and secondly that I defend my comments in relation to the country as a whole in the wake of the terrible scenes that we saw last summer. That issue is one reason why we must focus on youth unemployment, why we are investing so much money in tackling it, and why it is at the top of the Government’s list of priorities. It is just a shame that the last Government failed to deal with the problem in good times, when it started to become an issue after 2004.

Youth unemployment is far too high. I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s youth contract proposals, but does he agree that basic skills and qualifications are also vital to ensuring that young unemployed people obtain jobs?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have introduced skills conditionality in Jobcentre Plus, and have also increased the flexibilities available to our skills providers to ensure that when a young person who is out of work has a skills gap, we can refer him or her to a training course immediately to ensure that that gap is filled.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the number of apprenticeships in Harlow has increased by 76% in the past year? Is that not a better way of getting rid of the problem of youth unemployment than the dependency culture loved by Opposition Members?

My hon. Friend is right—and that statistic is no coincidence, because he, as the local Member of Parliament, has put a huge amount of effort into trying to ensure that more apprenticeship places are provided in Harlow. He deserves a lot of credit for that, as do all Members who are looking for extra apprenticeship opportunities, holding job fairs, setting up job clubs, and making a real difference to their constituents.

Universal Credit

We are making good progress towards the delivery of universal credit in 2013, and I have fortnightly progress meetings with officials and weekly reports from my office. I also chair the universal credit senior sponsorship group, which brings together all Government Departments and agencies that are relevant to the delivery of universal credit. Design work is well under way and is being continually tested with staff and claimants, and the development of the necessary IT systems will continue in parallel.

Many of my constituents complain to me that the current benefits system is far too complicated. There are more than 50 different benefits that people can claim, although no one appears to know the exact number, which leads to huge confusion among those who are genuinely in need. Can the Secretary of State confirm that universal credit will reduce that complexity, improve the user experience and, most important, make clear to all claimants that it will always pay to work?

I can confirm that. Universal credit will put together all the benefits that are relevant to people going back to work. Benefits that are not relevant to the Work programme will not be included, but the rest will. That will hugely slim down the complexities, and will ensure that people understand that in every hour for which they work, they are better off in work than out of work. The migration will take place in three phases over four years, and each phase will bring in a new group of claimants of those different benefits until we have finally completed the process and there is a single universal credit.

As the Secretary of State says, when the universal credit is introduced in October 2013, a couple with two children and working 16 hours a week will be better off in work than on benefits, so why is he introducing changes to the working tax credit this April that will make the same family £728 a year worse off than an equivalent family with no one working? That does not seem to make much sense in policy terms.

The tax credit system, which the hon. Lady’s party left us, is administered and run by the Treasury. She said that I was bringing this measure in, but the Treasury has made that policy decision. [Interruption.] Before Opposition Members get over-excited, I should add that I of course fully support everything my colleagues at the Treasury do. I remind the hon. Lady that when universal credit is reintroduced, people who fall into the bracket in question will be £95 better off than they would be on benefits. I also remind Opposition Members that we inherited a massive debt that the last Labour Government racked up, and we have to reduce it. This measure is one of the mechanisms by which to do that.

Female Unemployment

The Government are supporting women to move into employment, including self-employment, through the Work programme and our business mentoring scheme. We are also improving careers advice and training, and encouraging more women into apprenticeships. The action we are taking to increase flexibility in the workplace and support with child care costs will also help to open up opportunities for women.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but she did not mention the fact that female unemployment is now at a 25-year high. The Daycare Trust has found that, with nursery costs having increased by an average of 6% in the last year, some families are no longer better off in work once child care costs are taken into account. When will the Government accept that the self-defeating cuts in child care tax credit have made the female jobs crisis far worse?

The hon. Gentleman will also know that we are doing a great deal to help to make child care more affordable for those parents who need to use it. Early years education has been increased to 15 hours a week for all three and four-year-olds and our support for disadvantaged two-year-olds has increased by £760 million. An extra £300 million will go in through the universal credit to help women who are currently working limited hours to get access to subsidised child care. This is the sort of practical support that can truly help.

In Wales, women are currently being hit disproportionately hard by job losses. Indeed, last month’s unemployment figures show that there were 2,000 more women out of work but 5,000 fewer men out of work. As the public sector job losses begin to bite, what extra are the Government doing to help women in this regard?

We entirely understand, and take very seriously, the challenges women face in getting back into the workplace, including the problem of retaining jobs. That is why the Minister with responsibility for employment, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), is putting so much effort into the Work programme and universal credit, both of which will help many hundreds of thousands of workless households into work. Again, that is the sort of practical support that can truly make a difference for women.

Of the 348 current vacancies listed at the Malton job centre, some of the hardest to fill are care worker posts. Will the Minister use her good offices to ensure that women returning to work are pointed in that direction as well as to skills such as national vocational qualifications?

My hon. Friend is right: care work is now a very important job in all our communities. Jobcentre Plus has a number of vacancies in that area, and it is always trying to ensure that people with the appropriate training apply for them. As she rightly says, we also need to ensure that people have access to training, and the Work programme can help in that respect.

Motivation, employability and skills are the attributes that best help unemployed men and women into the workplace. Will my hon. Friend the Minister congratulate Conservative-led Kettering borough council, of which I am a member, on its employability and skills fair to be held this Friday, which will bring together local unemployed men and women with agencies and employers in an attempt to tackle the unemployment situation head-on?

My hon. Friend is right: we should applaud the work of those councils, including Kettering, that ensure that such skills fairs take place. Through them, unemployed people can learn not only where the jobs are but where the training can be found. There are currently more women starting apprenticeships than men, which shows that great changes can be made.

Despite promising policies to cut unemployment and make work pay, the Government are supporting measures that will leave many mums better off out of work. Is it not clear that these out-of-touch Ministers have not got a clue what life is like for mums struggling with food and fuel bills, given that their benefit and tax changes will cost the average family £580 this year, with thousands being hit by up to £4,000 as a result of the tax credit cuts alone?

I am sorry, but rather than leaving the country with the massive deficit that the hon. Gentleman’s party left us, the Government are putting practical programmes in place—if these had been done when his party was in government, the country would perhaps not be facing the current fiscal deficit.

Work Programme

14. What assessment he has made of the effect of employment trends on the operation of the Work programme. (97703)

We published adjusted projections of attachments to the Work programme in December. Those revised projections have been communicated to providers and published in the House of Commons Library. The revised projections take account of the latest Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts, observed trends in referrals since June, and policy changes.

I am grateful for that answer. The Work programme is a crucial element in helping the long-term unemployed back into work, and I particularly welcome the emphasis on payment by results. However, as our economy emerges from its current problems, there will be some regional variations in the job market. What is the Minister doing to monitor the situation? If necessary, might he consider a regional element to the pay structure?

I am pleased to be able to reassure my hon. Friend on this. I was in his county of Cornwall last week to meet Work programme providers in both the private and voluntary sectors, and what I saw was very encouraging. The progress they are making is similar to that being made elsewhere in the country, and there is no obvious sign of the regional variation he describes. I wish to pay tribute to the voluntary sector organisations I met, which are very involved in the Work programme. I pay particular tribute to Groundwork, which is running one of the most innovative motivational programmes for some of the hardest to help I have yet seen in the Work programme. That is, of course, helping his constituents and will do the right thing to help them into work.

Work Capability Assessments

18. What progress has been made on the implementation of the recommendations in Professor Harrington’s review of work capability assessments. (97708)

We are continuing to implement the reforms recommended to us by Professor Malcolm Harrington. He argued for a number of changes in his first report, all of which have been implemented, and we are in the process of implementing the changes recommended in his second report.

I thank the Minister for his response. One third of employment and support allowance claimants have mental health conditions and a significant number of initial work capability assessment decisions are overturned on appeal when further evidence becomes available about their condition. What action is the Minister taking to ensure that medical evidence is taken on board at a very early stage in order to prevent a number of appeals?

This is one area where we have worked very hard to secure a change. A large amount of new evidence was indeed appearing only at the appeal stage and that was one of the key things that Professor Harrington suggested we address. We are now bringing in medical evidence much earlier—at the start of the process, when the decisions are taken or when a reconsideration is taking place in Jobcentre Plus. There are now few circumstances in which new evidence appears at the appeal stage, and that is really important.

I am sure that the Minister will be aware of the research undertaken by Citizens Advice Scotland for its report “From pillar to post”, which highlighted some issues that Professor Harrington should be considering in his further reports. Will the Minister meet me and representatives of Citizens Advice Scotland to discuss those concerns so that he can discuss them with Professor Harrington before he undertakes his third review?

I have many meetings with people involved in these matters. I suggest that it is better for the hon. Gentleman and Citizens Advice Scotland to meet Professor Harrington directly to raise those concerns, rather than for me to be a middleman. We listen carefully to the recommendations he makes, and I would be happy to arrange that meeting for the hon. Gentleman.

Bereavement Benefit

A public consultation was launched in December 2011, seeking views on options for reforming bereavement benefits to ensure that they provide effective support to those who lose a husband, wife or civil partner. The consultation closes today and we will publish an official response to it in due course. That will summarise the comments received and outline the Government’s plans for reform.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Bereavements clearly cause a period of great stress for the families involved, and I welcome the Government’s review to ensure that we have a suite of payments that are fit for purpose and easy to understand. Will he bear in mind the problem that a number of my constituents have encountered, which they are struggling to understand? Benefits allowances are payable based on either the national insurance contributions of the deceased person or the widow’s or widower’s status, whereas the bereavement payment is based only on the NI status of the deceased person, and in the depth of their grief many people struggle to understand what seems to them to be an anomaly.

My hon. Friend is right to point out that different bereavement benefits, allowances and payments have different contribution rules. One of the issues on which we are consulting is whether they should be aligned in a more accessible way and although the consultation closes today, I shall take my hon. Friend’s question as a submission to it.

Not for the first time, I had a constituent in tears in my surgery last week as she had to pawn all her possessions to pay for her husband’s funeral. When the Minister simplifies the bereavement benefits, will he undertake not to use it as an opportunity to save money, too?

I am pleased to give the hon. Lady that assurance. She will, I am sure, have read the consultation document we produced before Christmas, which confirms that this is about spending the support we give to people who have been bereaved in a better way, not about reducing the spend.

Topical Questions

The Welfare Reform Bill is expected to receive Royal Assent later this week and will mark an important moment, cementing a new contract with the country that states that we will protect the most vulnerable and provide a system that is fair to the taxpayer by making sure through universal credit that work will pay. I believe that those changes are long overdue and I am grateful to all in this House who have helped to get them on the statute book.

The shadow Chancellor claims today that families are better off on benefits, where so many were trapped during 13 years of complex Labour reforms. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that he will change all that with the universal benefit and make it his mission to ensure that no family is better off on benefits?

I can confirm to my hon. Friend that the whole purpose of the Welfare Reform Bill, including the universal credit, which is at the heart of it, is that people will be better off in work than on benefits. I am always astounded by the fact that although many Opposition Members quite legitimately say that they support the universal credit, during its passage through this House and the other place they have never actually voted for it.

I want to bring the House’s attention back to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey). She has exposed an important truth: a couple on the minimum wage were £3,000 better off in work under Labour but after the changes that will be made in April they will be £700 better off on benefits. Will the Secretary of State tell us how many people he expects to give up work because they will no longer be better off in a job?

I do not expect anyone to give up work, because the jobcentres and the jobcentre staff will work with people to ensure that, as far as possible, they work up the hours and take advantage of the benefits that come with working more hours. I say to the right hon. Gentleman, as ever, and to the Opposition that they behave as though when they left office they left a perfect situation, but they left a massive deficit and debts piling up. He was the one who said at the time that there was no money left, so perhaps he would like to tell us where he was going to get the money from to pay off some of the deficit.

Let me give the Secretary of State a simple lesson in economics: the more people who are in work, the more tax comes into the Treasury; the more people who are on the dole, the more we pay out in welfare payments. That is why welfare payments are going through the roof. The Work programme is in chaos, the Minister for the Armed Forces is saying that there is a crisis in the funding model, and now we find out that people will be better off on benefits than in work. Will the Secretary of State promise us that in the Budget he will fix the situation whereby it no longer pays to go out and get a job?

The only group that is in chaos is the Opposition. First, they have completely failed to admit and recognise that they left this economy in a desperate state. Secondly, they said that they supported key measures in the Welfare Reform Bill but have never voted for them. They also voted against some of their own measures, which we carried through in our Bill. The reality is that the right hon. Gentleman’s economics do not add up: going on a spending spree, spending £150 billion on benefits and achieving nothing is a failure.

We have a whole series of measures. We recently introduced a new fraud and error strategy, which is already having some success. Future fraud will be reduced now, and agreed by the Office for Budget Responsibility in a sense, but we will reduce future fraud right now by £237 million. The plan and target is for us to reduce it by about £1.4 billion by March 2015. These are major measures over and above what we were left by the Opposition, who seemed quite content to watch fraud and error spiral out of control.

T3. As you know, Mr Speaker, the Wedgwood museum in Stoke-on-Trent is one of the greatest museums in the world and is facing the liquidation of its collection due to faulty pension legislation. The problem lies with the 2008 occupational pension schemes regulation and the last man standing principle, which leaves a solvent employer liable for the whole of the deficit in a multi-employer scheme. That was never meant to apply to charitable collections. Will the Minister review that legislation before we sacrifice more of our national heritage to the lawyers? (97715)

When any charity or other organisation joins a last man standing pension scheme, it is important that it take proper advice about the liabilities it is taking on. Obviously, that is a general observation. On this specific case, the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), has spoken to the chairman of the Pension Protection Fund about the Wedgwood museum, has explained the importance of the collection for the nation and has asked her whether she can find a way of preventing the collection from being broken up. That is something we all want to see.

T4. My constituent Vicki Gilbert relies on the disability living allowance mobility component, which gets her the blue parking badge she needs to go about her daily life. Despite the fact that she is an amputee with no possibility of recovery, she has been forced to go through periodic reassessment, and because of the backlog she has had to wait five weeks without a blue parking badge. Does the Minister agree that the process is superfluous in such situations, and will she look at this issue so that others in similar circumstances do not have to wait for their badge? (97716)

I know that blue badges are incredibly important for disabled people in getting out and about and I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), is looking into the issues to do with blue badges, and I will make sure that he is aware of the comments that have been made.

T6. Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Gregg McClymont) from the Front Bench, do Ministers agree that the current restrictions on the National Employment Savings Trust that restrict transfers and limit the amount that can be saved each year diminish the pressure on other established providers to bring down their excess costs and charges? While the Government are reflecting on this, surely they are missing an opportunity to make pensions more affordable for everyone. (97719)

The previous Government put those restrictions in place for a good reason—to try to make sure that NEST focused on the bottom end of the market. NEST has had a positive effect and new entrants have come into the market, but we are continuing to look at that issue because we are determined to make sure that people have a choice of good-value, low-cost pension providers.

T5. My constituent Gillian Reeves is actively looking for work and is expanding her skills, knowledge and experience by volunteering for local voluntary organisations and charities in Somerset. Will the Secretary of State give some clarity to those who are keen to be out of the house and busy doing something useful but are advised by their jobcentre that they must limit their volunteering to 16 hours a week or lose their jobseeker’s allowance? (97717)

We now actively encourage people to volunteer. I prefer to see people out of the house and doing things. They have an obligation to keep up their job search while they do so, but I shall happily discuss this specific case because it certainly is not our intention that people’s volunteering opportunities should be limited.

One of my constituents recently had his adoption allowance cut because his child received disability living allowance. We managed to get that overturned but can the Minister make sure that guidelines are issued so that adoption allowance is not cut when DLA, which is intended to meet essential needs, is received?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question. Disability living allowance is not linked to employment or income, so I shall look into the issue she raises in more detail.

T7. The Work programme is proving to be much needed and effective, but may I seek reassurance from the Secretary of State that there will be downstream activity from contracts so that small businesses and local community projects can also participate in delivering outcomes? (97720)

That is indeed happening. We now have several hundred voluntary sector organisations providing support to the Work programme in various ways, some on a localised level in local communities. They are an important part of the team delivering the project. It is a partnership between the public, private and voluntary sectors and it is making a difference to unemployed people, despite the attempts of the Opposition to put about negative stories which are completely without foundation.

I have a constituent with a degenerative, very painful condition who is due to lose his employment support allowance in two weeks. He feels a long way from the labour market. He also does not think he will be attractive to employers because of the degenerative nature of his illness, but to date he has had no advice or support from anyone about how he might go about getting the kind of job that he might be able to do. What advice would the Minister give my constituent?

We clearly have had to take a difficult decision on time-limiting, which we have debated extensively in the House. It will apply only to people who have another form of household income or who have savings in the bank. Everyone on ESA is entitled to volunteer for participation in the Work programme, so my advice to the hon. Lady’s constituent would be to discuss his situation with the jobcentre. There is specialist support available for people with health conditions and disabilities.

T9. What progress is being made to encourage people to get the best value for money when buying an annuity? (97722)

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. When people have saved for a pension, it is vital that they get the best possible pension out of it, and that may not be from the company they have saved with. That is why I very much welcome today’s Association of British Insurers code, which will be mandatory for members of the ABI and will make it much more natural that shopping around becomes the default, rather than something that one has actively to seek out.

The Department’s contract with Atos runs until 2015. We have taken no decisions about how the contracting structure will work beyond that point. Consistency of provision was necessary through the incapacity benefit reassessment process, but we will not take decisions on the detailed structure of the renewal of that contract for some while to come.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that rather than let the Socialist Workers party and their protest groups continue to confuse a good programme such as work experience with others, we should congratulate not only the companies that are doing so much for young people, but the young people who are taking up the scheme and have the motivation to build their CVs?

As ever, my hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. Work experience is a great programme, which is helping lots of young people to get into work at a reasonable cost to the Exchequer. Those two things need to be borne in mind. It is no good the Opposition sitting quiet, watching while trade unions back these anarchists and try to stop decent people getting into work.

People diagnosed with mesothelioma—141 former railway carriage builders in York have now died—can often claim compensation from their employer. The earlier they get compensation, the less they and their dependants need in benefits, so will the Secretary of State talk to the Secretary of State for Justice about fast-tracking these cases through the courts, as is currently done in the royal courts of justice in London, and making that a nationwide approach?

I am happy to have that conversation. We are also working hard with the insurance industry to make sure that we match employees who have suffered from the illness with employers who may have disappeared some years ago, to ensure that we find the employers liability insurance policies that can pay those employees the compensation that they so desperately need.

My constituent Andrew Taylor relies on the Motability scheme in order that he can work and live independently. His concern is that the personal independence payment thresholds will interfere with that. What assurance can the Minister give him, please?

I entirely understand the importance of mobility and being able to get out and about for disabled people. It is our intention that Motability should continue to be linked to the new PIP scheme. I take my hon. Friend’s comments into account.

Beverley Herbert in my constituency was one of six people recently employed on a work experience basis by a major pub chain. Within four weeks, four of the others had gone, and the two people who were there for eight weeks collecting glasses were given permanent jobs, but were sacked within two weeks. Does the Secretary of State agree that for the work experience programme to enjoy widespread confidence, safeguards are needed to ensure that it does not end up exploiting people and providing free labour?

If Labour Members really want to answer the questions about the work experience scheme, they need to talk to some of the young people who have been through it, got jobs in their thousands and are delighted by the support they have received. That is what a responsible Government do: try to tackle a real challenge, find the right way to solve it and do so in a cost-effective way for the taxpayer. It is just a shame that the Labour party is not more vociferous in its support for what we are doing.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a great shame that the Labour party seems unable to get behind the work experience programme and condemn the protests out of hand, and will he tell the House why he thinks that might be the case?

I have been wondering about that. Some right hon. and hon. Members—and some more so than others—have been conspicuous by their absence in this debate, and I sometimes wonder whether their trade union paymasters have something to do with their staying quiet throughout this whole debate.

The Welsh Assembly’s Labour Government have an initiative to help unemployed young people called Jobs Growth Wales. Do the central Government support it?

We support any sensible measures to tackle youth unemployment, because it is a challenge for all of us. The hon. Gentleman needs to answer this question: why is his hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) chairing a protest movement that is designed to stop young people getting the work experience opportunities that would get them into work and do the right thing for them?

Order. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) will not be answering anything now in the Chamber and is under no obligation to do so, but I know that the Prime Minister looks forward to doing so after his statement.